The threat from North Korea

If what is meant is the danger of North Korean nuclear-tipped long-range missiles raining upon a US territory like Guam, or any other country allied with the United States, I think it is safe to say there is no real threat from North Korea.

Its missiles can be located and bombed with lethal precision even before they can be launched. Or, they would be intercepted and destroyed in midair before they could reach any of their targets. The Pentagon knows this. China and Russia know this. North Korea probably knows it, too.

But none of this offers any assurance that a horrific war in the Korean Peninsula can be totally prevented. North Korea is a country ruled by a dictator who is perhaps as mad and as ruthless as his predecessors, grandfather Kim Il-sung and father Kim Jong-il. But, what makes the present situation a bit unpredictable is that the young Kim Jong-un, who sports the title Supreme Leader, seems more reckless, and more driven by impulse than by any clear understanding of world affairs.

Like most of his people, Kim is the product of a narrative of intense hate that ascribes to America all the misfortunes and setbacks that the Korean people have suffered since the end of World War II. According to this narrative, it was America that divided the ancient Korean nation into two, keeping them, to this day, separate and hostile to one another.

And, as though to pour salt on an open wound, it is the thousands of US troops in South Korea that maintain the fence separating the two Koreas from each other. From the North’s standpoint, the South may appear to be wealthier and more advanced, but this is a shallow prosperity that has been gained at the cost of serving as America’s puppet in the region.

Diplomatically and economically isolated from much of the world, North Korea is often called the “hermit state.” With its population of 25 million, or half of the South’s, North Korea exists in a 1950s time warp. It struggles to build a modern economy on the foundation of a primitive industrial infrastructure. Oblivious to the phenomenal economic growth achieved by China and South Korea, it has elevated isolation into a virtue, calling it “juche,” the ideology of national self-reliance.

In 1987, I had the rare opportunity to visit North Korea for about 10 days, as part of a delegation of Asian scholars organized by the Tokyo-based United Nations University. The only two commercial flights that were, at that time, allowed into North Korea originated either from Moscow or from Beijing. We flew to Pyongyang from Beijing on a study program that did not appear certain until it was actually time to board the plane.

We were assigned two young Koreans as “minders,” a man and a woman, who both spoke fluent English. The man, whom I had previously met in conferences abroad, taught sociology at the Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang. From the way he talked, he seemed to occupy a trusted position in the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea. He was forever talking about “juche,” which struck me as if it were a philosophical ginseng blended from Marxism-Leninism, which made them strong and capable of facing any adversity.

The tall and well-dressed young lady, on the other hand, said she was a music and theater student. She had been out of the country only once, but she could sing Western songs, including Broadway hits, as if she had lived abroad all her life. She seemed very keen for her country to break free from its US-imposed isolation, and for young Koreans like her to connect to what was happening in the rest of the world, particularly in the field of culture and education.

North Korea is, in every way, a poor archaic society without resources but with a large historic vision and a proud tradition.  Whatever wealth it could draw from its harsh terrain, it reserves to the military. Civil society does not exist. The people struck me as among the loneliest human beings in the world, excluded from the dynamic circuits of world society, and perennially thirsty for knowledge and for contact with the outside world.

Easily the highlight of our trip was the visit to Kaesong City near the South Korean border. Kaesong is a historic place because it was part of South Korea in the partition after World War II. It was retaken by North Korea following the 1953 invasion.

Our group was brought to the North Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone from where we could actually see unformed sentries watching us through their binoculars. “See, they’re American troops,” said our minders. I wasn’t sure if they were, but I knew there were about 30,000 US troops stationed in South Korea at any given time. It was an eerie feeling to find oneself at the center of a conflict line that has been frozen in time. It became clear to me that the war of the 1950s remained very much alive, and that it had merely been suspended. No country perhaps has prepared for war along its borders with greater intensity than North Korea. The Korean People’s Army, with a million troops and several million reservists, is on permanent war footing.

It is hard to ponder the consequences of a war of such magnitude. Millions will die in a matter of a few days. Hordes of people will try to escape to China or to South Korea. Russia and China, which share borders with North Korea—and the rest of the world—won’t merely stand by to watch.

The improbability of anything like this being allowed to happen is ironically what permits Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump to hype their respective war rhetoric. But, with leaders like them, costly miscalculations can happen at any time.